Baby Boomers Will Transform This (Late) American Life

Article excerpt

The image most people have of older Americans needs refreshment. The original concept that this is a largely poor and dependent population is being crowded out by the equally misleading generalization that they are all affluent retirees, living large.

Regardless of these contradictory images, major changes are expected in the near future for this population. While the number of older Americans has increased moderately over the past 20 years, we expect dramatic, unprecedented changes in their numbers and demographic profile.

Post-65 Gender Gap Shrinking

The 2010 U.S. Census counted 22.9 million women ages 65 or older, but just 17.4 million men that age, which means an age 65-plus gender ratio of 1.32 women to men. For these older women, that was an 11.3 percent increase from the 2000 Census. But the number of men rose much faster, up 20.5 percent in that same decade. Chart 1 (on page 7) shows how the growth rates for men and women ages 65 or older will be more than twice the rates that occurred over the past two decades.

By contrast, among adults ages 18 to 64, where there is an almost equal number of women and men, their numbers rose at about the same rates: 11.7 percent and 11.4 percent, respectively. This suggests that the well-known longevity gap between older women and older men, while still substantial, is slowly closing.

On average in 2010, a 65-year-old woman could expect to live another 20 years, about 2.5 years longer than men that age. That gap has been declining steadily for more than 30 years. Back in 1990, that gender gap was nearly four years. At its present rate of decline, by 2020 there may be only a two-year difference between men and women in their age 65 life expectancy.

Any shrinkage of this life expectancy gender gap will be positive, meaning fewer widows living alone, and higher household income from an increase of two-income households (even if only because there would be two Social Security recipients).

Older Americans as a Percentage of the Whole

Americans ages 65 or older were very close to the same fraction of all adults in 2010 (19 percent for women and 14 percent for men) as they were in 2000 (19 percent for women and 15 percent for men). Both Census counts found that one in six adults were ages 65 or older.

The 2020 and 2030 U.S. Census counts will almost certainly reveal a very different picture of older Americans. The set of Census Bureau projections we have chosen (the 2009 low-immigration scenario, which most closely mirrors immigration patterns across the past decade) shows that by 2020 more than one in five adults (21 percent) will be age 65 or older. And just 18 years from now in 2030, our Census Bureau projects that more than one in four (26 percent) of adults will be ages 65 or older.

That big a change in the number of older Americans is bound to have large impact on federal, state and local government agencies, as well as on public opinion. For example, in a recent online poll by the Wall Street Journal, two thirds of 1,200 respondents said they were "extremely worried" about the projected deficits in Social Security and Medicare.

Workforce and (Non) Retirement Trends

But that financial effect on public expenditures may be mitigated if large numbers of Americans older than age 65 choose (or are forced) to stay in the workforce rather than retiring. …